In part one of Russia and the West: Beyond Ukraine, I laid out the national priorities and goals of the Russian government in fomenting violent conflict in zones where well-supported insurrectionist movements strive to cultivate an environment of separatism and, ultimately, independence for the separatist regions. In part two, I will examine Russian efforts to dominate the national priorities of states in the post-Soviet space and assess the likelihood for conflict in specific regions of significant insurrectionist movements.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia comprise two large parts of what is commonly referred to as Eurasia. After the founding of the Soviet Union in 1922, Moscow’s policies dominated the local economies of what now exist as independent states.
Eastern Europe and the Caucasus
By destabilizing Ukraine, Moscow has effectively eliminated Ukraine’s bid for near-term integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). However, the events taking place in Donbas have elicited fears in places such as Moldova and Georgia, which failure to cooperate with Moscow on important issues of its foreign policy, could elicit interference by Russian intelligence and military forces in separatist areas such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
The recent presidential election in Abkhazia, outlined in my previous articles both here at SOFREP and at Foreign Intrigue, signaled a renewed dissatisfaction with Georgian efforts to reintegrate the breakaway region firmly under administrative control of Tbilisi. Simultaneously, Russian efforts to reignite the insurrectionist campaign in South Ossetia, reflected in recent infrastructural improvements and policies marginalizing ethnic Georgians in the breakaway region, reinforced an established separatist campaign with a renewed sense of purpose. Moscow’s efforts to target the tension-addled separatist regions such as Crimea, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia have contributed to instability in Eastern Europe.
The most intriguing of the possible insurrectionist resurgences could happen in Moldova. The thin slice of land occupying Moldova’s eastern territory, bordering Ukraine, is Transnistria. Having been in a state of ‘frozen conflict’ since the fracturing of the Soviet Union in 1991, Transnistria represents a powder keg – a tinderbox of potential conflict that could be very easily ignited with interference by and support of Russian intelligence services.
Găgăuzia, another region in Moldova with separatist ambitions, could follow suit and pull apart the territorial integrity of Moldova, fracturing the country. Recently, the European Union Parliament ratified an association agreement, ostensibly paving the way for the codification of ties between the European Union and the former Soviet republic. I noted recent events in Moldova (and the Caucasus) in my article at Foreign Intrigue, titled Another Look: Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova (A Preview). I will expand upon the significance of recent events involving Moldova in my next article here at SOFREP.
Public officials in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have also expressed increasing concern about Russian aggression and interference in the three Baltic states. Most urgently, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite issued dire warnings about a failure to halt Russian interference inside the states of Eastern Europe. In an interview published September 24, Grybauskaite emphasized the need to confront Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. When asked if Russian President Vladamir Putin will ‘…go to Transnistria…’, Grybauskaite responded:
If we will allow him to go, he will go anywhere. The problem is that Putin’s Russia today is ready and willing to go to war. Europe and the West are not ready and not willing to go to war. There is no leadership in Europe or in the world able to stop Putin. Afterwards, we will be surprised that new territories are taken, that new countries are partitioned, and it will be a lot more costly and too late maybe to solve it. (Lally Weymouth, The Washington Post, September 24)
Eastern Europe, representing much of Russia’s near-abroad, remains a strategic priority for Moscow as it pursues a resurgent imperialist foreign policy. What has happened so far in Ukraine could very easily be duplicated throughout very important and tenuously stable regions that have a history of separatist and insurrectionist campaigns since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
For Central Asia, statements out of Moscow in recent weeks imply a nascent intent to invest resources supporting a resurgence of intensified Russian influence in the capitals of the states in the post-Soviet space. Kazakhstan appears to be the state most amenable to supporting Russian foreign policy. This even as Chinese investment dominates the energy sector in Kazakhstan.
Russian policies that support pipeline construction and infrastructural improvements ostensibly lay the groundwork for Russian military lines of communication to be re-established southward to the valuable gas deposits in Turkmenistan and strategic territory in Tajikistan. In this respect, we find the potential for Russian-Chinese confrontation in Central Asia. While this is not likely to impact tacit alliances, trade agreements, and energy deals in the next decade as China rises to compete for regional hegemony in East Asia, Russian strategists no doubt identify China as its biggest competitor for dominance of Central Asia.
With regard to its near abroad in Central Asia, Moscow has recently begun cultivating a narrative that a rise in recruitment supporting the Islamic State demands an intensified Russian participation. In cynically crafting this narrative, Moscow has begun down a path where Islamist militancy will be the basis for interventionist military and intelligence campaigns, especially in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
Much of what the Kremlin is now asserting is a rise in ISIS recruitment and participation in the war in Syria is without foundation. While some reports indicate a modicum of support for ISIS in countries such as Kazakhstan, there has been no discernible escalation, intensification, or any other rise in Islamist militancy that diverges sharply from what has been the norm for the past few years. Many of the so-called Islamist groups in places such as Kyrgyzstan are better characterized as localized ethnic conflicts, such as the one that has simmered between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and the Ferghana Valley for well over a decade.
While ISIS may identify these areas as ripe for an intensified recruitment effort, no clear threat is visible at the moment to justify an increase in Russian involvement in the aforementioned countries. The recent statements of policymakers and public officials in Moscow to the contrary signal that a dishonest narrative is being cultivated in order to substantiate inflated claims of increased Islamist militancy in the post-Soviet space of Central Asia.
The way ahead, regional strategy
Russian interest in both Eastern Europe and Central Asia is driven by a number of policy goals: sustain support for prioritized national interests, ensure access to important energy deposits, markets, and transport routes, and balance both the encroaching domination of the West in Eastern Europe and China in Central Asia. As Ukraine and Georgia have repeatedly reinforced the urgency of prospective membership in both the EU and NATO, political and security priorities in the two former Soviet republics has driven a rift between the national governments and Moscow.
In response, Russian strategists have repeatedly fomented dissent in Ukraine and Georgia, exacerbated cultural, territorial, and political fissures through interference by Russian military and intelligence elements, and sought to undermine efforts at democratizing and stabilizing the governments in Kiev and Tbilisi. In Moldova, a familiar theme is beginning to take shape as well. In sending intelligence operatives into Transnistria as the war in Eastern Ukraine continues to rage, Moscow has dishonestly asserted that it has no direct involvement in either conflict.
The focus of Moscow in cultivating an atmosphere of insurrection in Donbas, Crimea, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia serves to spread instability throughout the post-Soviet space. In pursuing a policy of interference in the internal affairs of these states, the Kremlin hopes to co-opt the regimes controlling the separatist territories in Donbas, Crimea, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia while weakening national governments in Kiev, Chisinau, and Tbilisi. As the governments weaken and border conflicts rage with the separatist territories, the EU and NATO will be unable to integrate each state, rendering the three nations even more susceptible to Russian domination.
As we look ahead to the next phase in Russia’s interventionist campaigns in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it will be important to consider the consequences for Moscow’s domination of these former Soviet republics. The geopolitical consequences for an absorption of these states by the Putin regime will reverberate throughout Eurasia and beyond, impacting world markets as Russia seeks to control important regions rich in energy resources, dominate routes of transport for those resources, and dictate the national policy priorities of governments throughout Eurasia.
On the final point, the co-opting of the priorities of neighboring states would mirror another time in recent history and somewhat mimic the influence Moscow once had over Eurasia when it ruled as the capital of the Soviet Union. While Russia’s economic structure may have changed, its geostrategic priorities and goals have not.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Yahoo News)